This is a great time of year in the historical impersonator business, although the people who are dressing up like Uncle Sam or President George Washington prefer to be called “historical interpreters.”
Next weekend, which will be extended into Monday in order to include our celebration of the 235th anniversary of Americans’ declaration of independence, these interpreters will pop up at parades, picnics, and fireworks celebrations across the country.
Uncle Sam is probably the most widely recognized symbol of the United States. He’s an old, gray-bearded fellow with stars on his top hat.
He has been around since the War of 1812. Sometimes you even see him parading down Main Street on stilts.
But someone who was an even more popular American icon and a softer, more nurturing figure is harder to spot these days. She is “Miss Columbia,” a goddess of freedom - at least as old as Uncle Sam - whose regal bearing once projected America’s positive ideals and poetic nature.
Though she usually wore a Roman-style metal war bonnet and was draped in the stars and stripes of the American flag, kind-hearted Columbia reached out to immigrants and the poor. She and Uncle Sam often appeared together - Sam wagging his finger in warning while Columbia offered a warm embrace.
In 1886, sculptor Frederic Bartholdi’s monumental Statue of Liberty rose in New York Harbor - a gift of the French people. The copper Lady Liberty looked a lot like Columbia, though she wore a spiked crown and held high a torch of welcome.
She fired Americans’ imagination, and pretty soon she had elbowed Miss Columbia out of most illustrations. One of Columbia’s final, most enduring appearances came in 1924 as the logo of the Columbia Pictures movie studio, though this Columbia borrowed Lady Liberty’s torch.
Wholesome, almost feminine American idealism retreated as the nation embarked on overseas adventures at the dawn of the 20th century. Uncle Sam grew more and more scolding, and to this day his likeness turns up in scathing political cartoons.
If you want to see kind, gentle Miss Columbia this Independence Day, you’ll probably have to catch an old movie.